China's high-speed rail network carries burden of being safe and affordable
China's desire to be a science and technology leader was made plain when it became the third nation to put a man in space in 2003. With the opening of the world's longest high-speed railway on Wednesday - a 2,298 kilometre line from Beijing to Guangzhou on which trains run at more than 300km/h, completing the route in just eight hours - it is well on the way to becoming a technology master. The construction of the project, a small part of a nationwide system that by 2015 will span 18,000 kilometres, is a great achievement. But if aspirations are to be met, safety and attention to detail must at all times be priorities.
The system is, after all, the nation's showpiece to the world of what it can do. No other country has such ambitions for high-speed rail, and plans are in place to link with Southeast Asia and Europe. The scheduled completion of the Shenzhen to Hong Kong line in 2015 will shorten journey times to Beijing by about a third. Connectivity brings huge benefits: beyond bettering transportation, economic zones are brought closer, logistics costs reduced, labour is able to move more freely and land beside the route can be developed.
But success rests on confidence and trust, both of which were rocked in July 2011 when 40 people were killed in a high-speed train collision near Wenzhou . That prompted a shake-up of the railway ministry and measures to improve management and safety. The subsequent strict oversight, inspections and checks are fundamental to ensuring trains run smoothly. Tickets have to be made more affordable; until that time, slower train services have to continue in parallel.
So symbolic a venture requires determination. At no time can operators drop their guard - China has too much riding on the network. Beijing aims to achieve the status of global science and technology superpower by 2049. Much to be proud of has already been attained, but there is no more visible proof of ambitions than high-speed rail; every effort has to be made to ensure it is affordable, efficient, on time and above all, safe.